The Wonder of Teaching

I have written and spoken often of the two roots of the Big Mind process being my experience and training as a Zen monk and teacher for the past 40 years under the guidance of my own teacher Maezumi Roshi, and the insights of Western psychology, particularly the Voice Dialogue method of Doctors Hal and Sidra Stone as well as other great western psychotherapists. The subject of how Big Mind emerges from and exemplifies traditional Buddhist teachings going all the way back to Shakyamuni Buddha is further explored in this article by a brilliant and renowned Dutch scholar of Buddhism who is also a Dharma successor of mine, Maurice Shonen Knegtel Sensei.

— Genpo Roshi

The Wonder of Teaching

The Big Mind process in a Buddhist perspective

By Maurice Shonen Knegtel Sensei

Like Socrates in our Western culture, Gautama the Buddha in India functioned as a spiritual midwife to his students. Both were helping students give birth to their own insights, instead of teaching about an insight they had not yet really experienced themselves. Let me give a fine example of the Buddha’s working with a student:

Vaccha the student asked Gautama the teacher: ‘Is there any view which you have adopted, Gautama?’

‘The adoption of views is a term discarded for the truth-finder, who has had actual vision of the nature, origin and cessation of things material, of feelings, of perception, of deeply rooted patterns, and of consciousness. Therefore it is that, by destroying, stilling, suppressing, discarding and renouncing all supposing, all imaginings, and all tendencies to the pride of saying I or mine, the truth-finder is delivered because no fuel is left to keep such things going.’

‘When his heart is thus delivered, Gautama, where is an almsman reborn hereafter?’

‘Reborn does not apply to him.’

‘Then he is not reborn?’

‘Not-reborn does not apply.’

‘Then he is both reborn and not reborn?’

‘Reborn and not-reborn does not apply.’

‘Then he is neither reborn nor not reborn?’

‘Neither reborn nor not-reborn does not apply to him.’

‘To each and all of my questions, Gautama, you have replied in the negative. I am at a loss and bewildered, the measure of confidence you inspired by your former talk has disappeared.’

‘You ought to be at a loss and bewildered, Vaccha. For this doctrine is profound, recondite, hard to comprehend, excellent, beyond dialectic, subtle, only to be understood by the wise. To you it is difficult, who hold other views and belong to another faith and objective […]. So I in turn will question you, for such answer as you see fit to give. What think you, Vaccha? If there were a blaze in front of you, would you know it?’


‘If you were asked what made that fire blaze, could you give an answer?’

‘I should answer that what made it blaze, was the fuel. […]’

‘If the fire went out, would you know it had gone out?’


‘If now you were asked in what direction the fire had gone, whether to the east, west, north or south, could you give an answer?’ ‘The answer does not apply.’

(Majjhima Nikaya, translated by Robert Chalmers, Oxford University Press, London, 1926, Vol. I, pp 342 – 344)

Now Vaccha would still be at a loss and bewildered after this dialogue with the Buddha, because he had been led to an astonishing insight that was beyond his expectations, his concepts, and his logic. The Buddha guided him — not by rational explanation, but by questioning — to a place where he could actually see as the Buddha sees. The Buddha was not preaching, he was facilitating his student so that he could see for himself that the truth-finder is ‘neither reborn nor not-reborn’, and is indeed not separate from himself.
A Brahmin once asked Gautama about the wonders he performed as a holy man. This is what the Buddha meant when he answered, ‘The only wonder I know of is the wonder of teaching.’

Big Mind and Abhidharma

Zen Master Genpo Merzel uses exactly the same method to accomplish the wonder of teaching in his Big Mind process. He does not talk about the Dharma; he guides his students to a place where they themselves express the Dharma. The way he does this is extremely simple and effective. He just asks students if they would allow him to speak to the voice of wisdom, or compassion, or non-seeking mind, or Big Mind, which is as a matter of fact the voice of enlightenment. And when they speak as one of these voices, they actually are that aspect of Mind and do speak as wisdom, or compassion, or non-seeking mind, or enlightenment. Afterwards students may experience the same kind of bewildermentVaccha did, because they have had direct access to a state of mind they were looking for all their life, but not by means of the familiar route of dualistic thinking.

Genpo Roshi uses the term ‘voices’ for the different aspects of mind. This is a contemporary, Western way (derived from the Voice Dialogue work of Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone) of speaking of Buddhist dharmas. In the Abhidharma, or ‘the Higher Dharma’, we find lists of all these aspects of mind. Among them are sense organs and sense objects, birth, death, impermanence, samadhi, confidence, non-greediness, doubt and ignorance, but also emotions like hatred, pride and anger.

In the early Abhidharma traditions (India, Fourth Century B.C.) dharmas were considered as ‘events’ or ‘items of experience’ (A History of Buddhist Philosophy, David Kalupahana, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1992, p. 145). They are non-substantial manifestations of the Dharma, which exist in dependent co-arising with all other non-substantial manifestations, like images in a mirror. All dharmas listed in the various Abhidharma texts refer back to items of experience named by Gautama the Buddha himself in his teachings, and Buddhist monks and nuns used them for meditation. Much later, in the Fourth Century A.D., the dharmas were considered aspects of mind by the Yogacarins of the Great Vehicle Buddhism (Mahayana), who saw reality-as-it-is as ‘Mind-only’ (vijnaptimatrata). Genpo Roshi’s Big Mind is a Western expression of the Yogacara teaching that everything is Mind. And the meditation of the Yogacarins on the dharmas is transformed in a Buddho-Jungian process, in which one owns an aspect of mind by giving voice to it.

It is no wonder that Genpo Roshi’s Big Mind process is in tune with the Yogacara teaching of Mind-only. When Chan appeared in China in the Seventh Century A.D., as the fruit of a long and highly complicated process of assimilation of Indian Buddhism with Chinese Taoism and Confucianism, it was called The Lankavatara School, named after the famous Sutra that formed the basis of the Yogacarin teaching. Early great Chan Masters like Mazu emphasized Mind (citta in Sanskrit, hsin in Chinese) in the same way the Yogacarins did, and often referred to the Lankavatara Sutra. Of the legendary Bodhidharma, who was said to have brought Chan from India to China, the story goes that he carried only one book with him in his travels from West to East, the Lankavatara Sutra. In the tradition of the teaching of Mind-only, Genpo Roshi discovered the Big Mind process and gave the inheritance of the Lankavatara an expression that perfectly fits our Western culture.

Big Mind, koan and Tathagathagarba

The trust the teacher has in the student that he or she can access the enlightened state of mind is a trust we find in koan practice as well as in the Big Mind process. In koan practice the student is asked to be one with the enlightened mind of the Master. In the Big Mind process the student is asked to be one with an aspect of mind. It could be craving, doubt, the critic, the vulnerable child, the one who goes back to the marketplace, or Wisdom, Compassion, the non-striving mind (i.e. the mind of Nirvana) or Big Mind itself, which is the awakened state of mind. The experience of being one with whatever is asked for is similar in koan training and in the Big Mind process, but it is so much easier in the Big Mind process, because the facilitator is just asking to speak to a voice, and the student just responds: he becomes one with that aspect of mind and gives voice to it. Koan training can involve a lot of thinking, and often a stressful effort to identify with the mind of the Master. In the playfulness of the Big Mind process oneness just happens. Of course, when a voice is disowned, it can be a hell of struggle to find that aspect of mind and give voice to it.

Both koan training and the Big Mind process are rooted in and validated by the Third Century A.D. Indian teaching of the Tathagathagarba, or ‘the womb of the Buddha’. This is one of the three most fundamental tenets of Great Vehicle Buddhism, along with the paradox that form is identical with emptiness, and the symbol of the Bodhisattva. It states that everything is Buddha-nature. If you trust this, your life is the life of the Buddha. It is on the basis of this trust that it is possible to be one with the mind of an enlightened master when working on a koan. And it is on the basis of this trust that participants in the Big Mind process can answer the facilitator’s question ‘whom I speaking to?’ with ‘I am Wisdom’, or ‘I am Compassion’, or ‘I am Big Mind’. It is on the basis of this trust that students can see for themselves and express their insight that they are all-inclusive, unborn (as Zen Master Bankei said), deathless (as the Buddha said), without beginning or end, and one with everything and everybody. Who can say ‘I am the Awakened One’ in this lifetime? And who can say this the first time they experience the Big Mind process? To really trust this insight takes time. But the fact that it is possible to speak to the Enlightened One right now, a fact that is shown in both koan practice and the Big Mind process, substantiates one of the most fundamental Mahayana teachings, that of the Tathagathagarba.

Big Mind and early Chan

The evolution of Chan in China, in the Seventh Century A.D., suggests to us Westerners how Buddhism will develop in the West. If it is to take root in our culture and society, it will be so thoroughly transformed that a Japanese, Tibetan or Thai Buddhist might not recognize it as Buddhism. Even its name could change. Chan did not exist before the Seventh Century A.D. Neither the name, the way of teaching, nor the practices existed. Chan really was a Chinese form of Indian Mahayana Buddhism. I think the same is true for Big Mind. It is a genuine Western form of Zen Buddhism, with a Western name, a Western way of teaching based on Voice Dialogue, and a Western mode of practice, seated in chairs and guided by a facilitator. Nevertheless, this Western form is totally in tune with traditional Buddhist teaching. The way the facilitator works with students goes back to the way Gautama the Buddha worked with his disciples. The concept of Big Mind and the voices that are worked with go back to the Yogacara School’s concept of Mind-only and the dharmas in the Abhidharma traditions. And the teaching of the Tathagathagarba accounts for why it is not heretical to speak directly to the voice of the Awakened One.

There is another thing we can learn from the development of early Chan in China. During the first two centuries of its development in the classical period of Chan, the source of all those famous and hilarious stories between Master and student, the teaching and the wonder of the teaching were very much alive in what is called ‘the methodless method’. In fact, there was no difference between teaching, practice and realization. It all happened on the spot, using whatever was at hand in the moment. Take for example the following dialogue, in which Master Mazu (709 – 788) and his student Baizhang are walking in the mountains:

A flock of wild ducks flew past them.

Mazu said: ‘What’s that?’

Baizhang said: ‘Wild ducks.’

Mazu said: ‘Where’d they go?’

Baizhang said: ‘They flew away.’

Mazu then twisted Baizhang’s nose so hard he cried out.

Mazu said: ‘So you say they’ve flown away!’

Upon hearing these words Baizhang attained enlightenment.

(Zen’s Chinese Heritage, Andy Ferguson, Wisdom Publication, Boston 2000, p.77)

We don’t know exactly how they practiced in those early ages of Chan. What we do know is that the Masters were often farmers and that teacher and students made a living by working long days in the fields. Teaching, practice and realization took place in everyday activity, like farming, walking through the mountains, drinking tea, cleaning, or just talking. Probably they did not sit that much in formal zazen, and the early Masters rarely talk about sitting practice. Zen was not yet formalized with rituals and ceremonial practices, as it was later in Sung China (Tenth to Fourteenth Century A.D.), Korea, Vietnam and Japan. Early Chan was a living religion, not dependent on forms like teisho (formal teaching), zazen (formal sitting) or daisan (formal interview). Enlightenment was found and expressed in daily activities. And the way of teaching of the old Masters was very similar to that of Gautama the Buddha. Students were led to a place where they are one with the Dharma and express it. Genpo Roshi’s Big Mind process offers the same living religion in a playful game of giving voice to whatever dharma is coming up and by skillfully practicing the same ‘wonder of teaching’ as Gautama the Buddha and early Chan Masters did. If there is one thing our present day and age sorely needs, it’s this living religion and ‘wonder of teaching’ that can help us to connect with ourselves, with others, and with what we and every living creature in this universe are: let’s call this ‘Big Mind’.

Maurice Shonen Knegtel Sensei teaches Buddhist philosophy at several universities in The Netherlands and Belgium. He is author of many books on Buddhism and contemporary spirituality. He is a Zen student and a Dharma successor of Genpo Roshi.

9 thoughts on “The Wonder of Teaching”

  1. Thank you for the beautiful story of Vaccha and Gautama, so poignant and simple. The entire article is worthy of contemplation, study and to be one with. I did not think I was coming to the computer today to get such high teaching, that is what I got. Thank you, with appreciation for all Zen teachings I received. Sincerely, Clea

  2. Thank you Maurice Sensei – a beautiful contribution to the ongoing discussions on teachings, methods, traditions and Big Mind…..

  3. Still another aspect from which to look at Big Mind. Turning the diamond, seeing and wondering, recognizing. Thank you for this on Sunday morning in Europe!


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